Global Investing

Weekly Radar: Q1 earnings test as the herd scatters

US Q1 EARNINGS START/DUBLIN EURO GROUP MEETING/US T-SECRETARY LEW IN BERLIN-PARIS/US-FRANCE-ITALY GOVT BOND AUCTIONS/FRANCE NATL ASSEMBLY VOTES ON LABOUR REFORM/VENEZUELA ELECTIONS

World markets have started the second quarter in an oddly indecisive mood given that Q1 turned out to be yet another bumper start to the year, looking to extend record stock market highs on Wall St but lacking the juice of new information to make a decisive break while Europe splutters and emerging markets and commodities head south. Two important pieces of the U.S. jigsaw will likely emerge over the coming week  with this Friday’s US employment report and the start of the Q1 corporate earnings season next week.

But there’s clearly been a more general rethink further afield among global investors given the breakdown in cross-asset and cross-border correlations – meaning it’s no longer enough to just get Wall St right and adjust your global risk button accordingly. It looks much harder work to get regional or asset allocations and positioning right. As Wall St flirts with new highs and US and Japanese equity funds continue draw hefty inflows, there’s been a pullback from all things Europe surrounding the Cyprus saga and parallel growth disappointments across the region and EPFR data last week showed redemptions from euro stock, bond and money funds continued.

Euro stocks, as a result, are now flat for the year after two consecutive months in negative territory wiped out all of frothy January. And while you’d have made a cool 10 percent in developed market equities collectively in the first quarter and almost 9 percent on Wall St alone, you’d be in the red in emerging markets and badly burnt in gold, metals and commodities at large. So while the headline equity story suggests a G7 global recovery is underway at last, as the OECD suggested last week,  that’s not the signal from commodities and the emerging world. Could it really be just be a domestic US recovery story all on its own?

As a result it’s hard to find a binding theme so far in early April and market pricing this week reflects that somewhat, even though Easter-related holidays in many western markets contributed to the lack of direction. Apart from earnings season starting bell, next week has the euro group meeting in Dublin,  new US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew in Berlin and Paris and a hefty slate of data and debt auctions everywhere.

Rich investors betting on emerging equities

By Philip Baillie

Emerging equities may have significantly underperformed their richer peers so far this year (they are about 4 percent in the red compared with gains of more than 6 percent for their MSCI’s index of developed stocks) , but almost a third of high net-worth individuals are betting on a rebound in coming months.

A survey of more than 1,000 high net-worth investors by J.P. Morgan Private Bank reveals that 28 percent of respondents expect emerging market equities to perform best in the next 12 months, outstripping the 24 per cent that bet their money on U.S. stocks.

That gels with the findings of recent Reuters polls where a majority of the 450 analysts surveyed said they expect emerging equities to end 2013 with double-digit returns.

Emerging earnings: a lot of misses

It’s not shaping up to be a good year for emerging equities. They are almost 3 percent in the red while their developed world counterparts have gained more than 7 percent and Wall Street is at record highs. When we explored this topic last month, what stood out was the deepening profit squeeze and  steep falls in return-on-equity (ROE).  The latest earnings season provides fresh proof of this trend and is handily summarized in a Morgan Stanley note which crunches the earnings numbers for the last 2012 quarter.

The analysts found that:

–With 84 percent of emerging market companies having already reported last quarter earnings, consensus estimates have been missed by around 6 percent. A third of companies that have already reported results have beaten estimates while almost half have missed.

– Singapore, Turkey and Hong Kong top the list of countries where earnings beat expectations while earnings in Hungary, Korea and Egypt have mostly underwhelmed. Consumer durables companies recorded the biggest number and magnitude of misses at 82 percent.

A Plan B for Argentina

What’s Argentina’s Plan B?

President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner has said she will sell the presidential palace in Buenos Aires, if need be, to keep paying creditors who agreed to restructure the country’s debts.  But it may not come to that. Warning: this is a complicated saga with very interesting twists.

A pair of hedge fund litigants demanding $1.3 billion in payments and a New York court are making it hard for Kirchner to keep paying international bondholders. But she might contemplate asking those existing creditors to swap into Argentine law bonds, to which the writ of the New York court will not extend.

First some background. Argentina is due to pay bond coupons this week and in June. Looks like the hedge funds will decline the payment proposal Argentina made last week; this could lead to a default.

European banks: slow progress

The Cypriot crisis, stemming essentially from a banking malaise, reminds us that Europe’s banking woes are far from over. In fact, Stephen Jen and Alexandra Dreisin at SLJ Macro Partners posit in a note on Monday that five years into the crisis, European banks have barely carried out any deleveraging. A look at their loan-to-deposit ratios  (a measure of a bank’s liquidity, calculated by dividing total outstanding loans by total deposits) remain at an elevated 1.15. That’s 60 percent higher than U.S. banks which went into the crisis with a similar LTD ratio but which have since slashed it to 0.7.

It follows therefore that if bank deleveraging really gets underway in Europe, lending will be curtailed further, notwithstanding central bankers’ easing efforts. So the economic recession is likely to be prolonged further. Jen and Dreisin write:

We hope that European banks can do this sooner rather than later, but fear that bank deleveraging in Europe is unavoidable and will pose a powerful headwind for the economy… Assuming that European banks, over the coming years, reduce their LTD ratio from the current level of 1.15 to the level in the U.S. of 0.72, there would be a 60% reduction in cross-border lending, assuming deposits don’t rise… This would translate into total cuts in loans of some $7.3 trillion.

Asia’s credit explosion

Whatever is happening to all those Asian savers? Apparently they are turning into big time borrowers.

RBS contends in a note today that in a swathe of Asian countries (they exclude China and South Korea) bank deposits are not keeping pace with credit which has expanded in the past three years by up to 40 percent.

Some of this clearly is down to slowing exports and a greater focus on the domestic consumer.  Credit levels are also rising overall in these economies because of borrowing for big infrastructure projects.  But there are signs too that credit conditions are too loose.

Rand: the only way is south

Any hopes of policy support for the rand from the South African Reserve Bank (SARB) have vanished.  The currency fell 1 percent after yesterday’s SARB meeting where  Governor Gill Marcus made it clear she would not be standing in the way of the rand’s move south. It is now trading at 9.32 per dollar.

More losses look likely, especially if foreign bond investors throw in the towel, a move which analysts at Societe Generale liken to “the market equivalent of a volcanic eruption”. Foreigners, after all, own more than 36 percent of the 1 trillion-rand market in local currency sovereign bonds.

Bearishness appears to have escalated since a Reuters poll of 32 analysts conducted in early-March.  Back then the mean forecast for the rand’s exchange rate in a month’s time was 8.94 per dollar, the poll found.  The 12-month mean forecast was for 8.787.

Dollar drags emerging local debt into red

Victims of the dollar’s strength are piling up.

Total returns on emerging market local currency bonds dipped into the red for the first time this year, according to data from JPMorgan which compiles the flagship GBI-EM global diversified index of domestic emerging debt. While the EMBI Global index of sovereign dollar debt has already taken a hit the rise in U.S. yields, local bonds’ problems are down to how EM currencies are performing against the dollar.

JPMorgan points out that while bond returns in local currency terms, from carry and duration, are a decent 1 percent, that has been negated by the 1.3 percent loss on the currency side. With the dollar on the rampage of late  (it’s up almost 4 percent in 2013 against a grouping of major world currencies) that’s unsurprising. But a closer look at the data reveals that much of the loss is down to three underperforming markets — South Africa, Hungary and Poland. These have dragged down overall returns even though Asian and Latin American currencies have done quite well.

The graphic below shows South African local debt bringing up the bottom of the table, with the FX component of returns at around minus 9 percent  In rand terms however the return is still in positive territory, but only just. Hungary and Poland fare only slightly better.

Using sterling to buy emerging markets

Sterling looks likely to be one of this year’s big G10 currency casualties (the other being  yen).  Having lost 7 percent against the dollar and 5.5 percent to the euro so far this year on fear of a British triple-dip recession, sterling probably has further to fall.  (see here for my colleague Anirban Nag’s take on sterling’s outlook).

Many see an opportunity here — as a convenient funding currency to invest in emerging markets. A funding currency requires low interest rates that can bankroll purchases of higher-yielding assets including stocks, other currencies, bonds and commodities. Sterling ticks those boxes.  A funding  currency must also not be subject to any appreciation risk for the duration of the trade. And here too, sterling appears to win, as the Bank of England’s remit widens to give it more leeway on monetary easing.

All in all, it’s a better option than the U.S. dollar, which was most used in recent years, or the pre-crisis favourite of the Swiss franc, says Bernd Berg, head of emerging FX strategy at Credit Suisse Private Bank.

Cyprus: don’t line up the dominoes

By Stephen Eisenhammer

Over the past few years we’ve become used to the global economy resting on a knife-edge. So when dramatic events like the levy on bank deposits in Cyprus happen we wait for the dominoes to fall. Two days on we’re still waiting…

The recovery in the euro zone, so vital to Europe’s emerging markets,  is undoubtedly fragile but the incident in Cyprus doesn’t seem to be enough to knock it all down now that the European Central Bank seems willing to step in if borrowing rates go to high.

Overall, this should not be read as a game-changer for the global markets but more as background noise creating indeed some volatility, on top of the uncertainty created after the Italian elections - Societe Generale.